Women as Victims in Comics, Movies, and Books

June 29th, 2010 by | Tags:

This is a difficult entry for me to word, because a supposition has been set down by feminists about why women are portrayed as victims, and I don’t disagree with it.  Not one bit.  At the same time, I have some thoughts that I hope will broaden the understanding of why women are the victims in fiction, but that I think could also be used as an excuse.  So I’m trying to make my point clear, without any confusion.

It’s pretty obvious that in fiction, especially in horror or action genre’s, women are sent in to be captured, to scream and be horrified, to look pitiful when they’re being used as a bargaining chip, and in many cases to die.  They’re the victims who wring the most drama from the situation, and they engage the audience’s sympathy more than men do when they’re put in peril.  Some people argue that this decision to endanger women shows that women are considered more valuable than men.  If a guy’s life is on the line, the audience doesn’t care as much.  That argument never worked for me.  If a female character’s most valuable when being a hung over an abyss, female characters aren’t in a good position.  The feminist argument is that women are most often put in the action genre to be prizes and plot points, and because there is something in people that thrills to see women in danger.

Like I said, I don’t disagree with that.

I think, however, that women in danger is compelling because of the way that those women can behave.  Any horror movie trailer will include the blood-curdling shrieks of women.  They’ll scream, cry, beg for their lives.  They’ll whimper when they’re afraid.  They’ll rock back and forth in shock.  They’ll go through a massive range of emotions.

And, more often than not, at the end of that horror movie, the woman will pull herself together, beat the hell out of the villain, and walk away.  (There are exceptions.  Some modern horror movies like to kill off everyone, but they suck.  They do.)

Men in horror movies, or action movies, or comics, or fiction, don’t tend to do the same.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think that actual men in danger would react every bit as emotionally as women do.  No one’s whimper-proof.  It’s just that audiences don’t accept it the same way that they do women.

A woman can be a screaming, quivering wreck and still be tough as nails a few scenes later.  If a man does the same thing, shrieking and begging and going to pieces, its rare that his character is given the same respect, even if he does overcome his weaknesses and become the hero.  Women are given the full range of human emotion.  Men are tough guy stereotypes.  It’s no wonder that women in peril are more interesting to watch.

I’ve always thought that what modern men need most is a ‘women’s movement’ of their own.  The women’s movement made it acceptable for women to not only retain the ‘feminine’ traits that they were always allowed to express, but also pick up any and all masculine traits as well.  They can grovel in the dirt *and* grind their enemies into the dust.  Men, on the other hand, have relatively circumscribed behavior.  Although they do tend to have more power, and get more respect, when they show masculine emotions, when they step away from traditionally masculine traits, they get a tidal wave of disapproval.  It’s an effective carrot and stick strategy, and unless there’s a line of defense for men who men who step outside the masculine sphere, it will continue to limit men’s behavior both in fiction and in life.

Before anyone says that the continued use of women as victims is some kind of sign of female empowerment, or of female dominance, lets remember one more time what we’re talking about.  Screaming, begging, weeping, shaking, and breaking down are signs of weakness.  There’s no question that they’re understandable, but comic books and action movies are power fantasies.  Like women being ‘valued’ as long as they’re being threatened, women having the freedom to be weak is a sign of the social order.  I remember a few years ago, Marvel published a comic in which a female hero was brutalized on camera, for the entertainment of a bunch of villains.  The woman screamed and fought ineffectually, and the film ended to general approval.  Marvel said that the comic was intended to be horrifying and to sicken the readers, not to glorify female suffering.  I believe that that was true.

I also believe that Captain America wouldn’t be in a scene like that.  Or Tony Stark.  They might be beat up on camera, but they wouldn’t be in a scene like *that*.  Screaming, begging, weeping, coming apart, being beaten down as they try to fight – this is not something male heroes do.  At least, not male heroes who will continue to be marketable.  Yes, in general women get a fuller range of expression, but it’s important to remember that they get that range of expression in order to be allowed to behave in ways that would be too degrading, humiliating, and ruinous for male characters.  Being skewered on a hook to tug the audience’s heartstrings is not a sign of social equality.  Especially not when they’re alone out there.

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10 comments to “Women as Victims in Comics, Movies, and Books”

  1. There are some “mens’ rights movements” out there, but they are basically misogynistic jerkfests formed by guys who blame women for not getting everything they want in life, and then expecting women to make it better. Then they also expect maybe for women to fix the few, small, token injustices that may favor women in some very narrow areas.

    They are at no point interested in expressing full ranges of human emotion, as that is a sign of how men are “feminized” and “weakened” by modern society, apparently forgetting that it was okay for Spartans to cry at poetry that moved them.

    The womens’ movement has allowed women to gain a few “masculine” traits in some limited cases in media where a male doesn’t need the spotlight for something else. The media industries have been ironically some of the very slowest areas of life to change in response to social movements, for, I think, a lot of reasons–but one of the most important is that while women can be allowed to do a little more, the men simply can’t be allowed to do less, ergo Batman and Superman must remain on top even if Wonder Woman is shoehorned in under a pretense of being equal in stature.

  2. I agree for the most part, but there are exceptions. See Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead and to a lesser extent Invincible.

    Also, the scene in the Dark Knight where Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face interacts with Maggie Gyllenthal when they are both being held hostage. Maggie is quite composed considering the event taking place.

  3. “If a man does the same thing, shrieking and begging and going to pieces, its rare that his character is given the same respect, even if he does overcome his weaknesses and become the hero. ”

    Which explains the disrespect I see for Ultimate Spider-man.

  4. My men’s movement is not a “misogynistic jerkfest.” We are merely fighting back against the misandrist gynocracy that makes life hell for any true man. (Note: if its not clear this part of my post is a joke.)

    I like what you suggest here. Even though it is not something I tend to focus on when reading, the feminist perspective is hard for me to ignore after way too many lit classes taught by professors who really do care. The situations you describe are not going to go away, there will always be a need to show the villain is bad or how effected the characters in horror movies are. So why not put men into that situation. Let’s see Tony Stark’s armor taken from him and being beaten with no ability to fight back. Let’s see how he would react to that. Of course it would only be done to show how awesome he is when he turns the tables.

    As far as the horror side I have fewer thoughts, because I am screaming like that woman in the movie.

  5. This brings to my mind certain notable exceptions in film, and how they are notable perhaps because they’re exceptions… like Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of his own tough-guy archetype in Unforgiven. And Bruce Campbell! One of the most beloved of all B-movie actors, and his most memorable characters are the ones who scream and whine and freak out before pulling themselves together and kicking ass (and, in many cases, afterwards too). The man is known for his panicky scream. It goes to show that men playing the “victim” can be both compelling and refreshing.

  6. It’s a good point.

    Someone made a blog post a while back, might even be a couple years old now, talking about Alfred’s masculinity. It talked about how Alfred was a loving, nurturing domestic caregiver, parent, guardian, nurse, etc, and simultaneously still obviously a man and masculine–but without needing to be a body-builder (I’m choosing to ignore Frank Miller’s ASBAR, thank you) or overly tough and physical. There’s no doubt he’s a powerful, respected man, but he isn’t usually portrayed as such in a that stereotypically masculine way.

    (Of course, the difference with Alfred is that he presumably gets paid for it, in contrast to most women who take on those roles in the home. Though of course, with Alfred it most definitely isn’t just a job, but a life he’s devoted to supporting Bruce and their extended family.)

  7. Like Esther, I am a strong supporter of the manocentric maleocracy.

    I can think of a few notable exceptions to what Esther’s talking about, which have been used to varying degrees of success. Daredevil has been a big fat crybaby for too long and too often at this point for his tears to really mean anything. They’re just part of the status quo. “Where’s Matt Murdock?” “Oh, he’s up on the roof, crying some more.” He’s the main exception to what you’re talking about, and a good example of overdoing it.

    Spider-Man is the best example of a vulnerable (for lack of a better word) hero, though. In one of my favorite Spidey stories, he throws a series of temper tantrums. A few weeks ago, he was reduced to tears and being too afraid to do anything at all by a villain. After beating the villain, he went to visit his aunt and was in tears for pretty much the entire thing, begging for some comfort and pleading for his aunt to show him that real life isn’t miserable and people aren’t horrible.

    His adventures broke him down and he finally cracked under the pressure. It didn’t strike me as being emasculating or harmful to the character, so much as the logical end point of a story. It was good writing pulling an emotion out of you. You feel pity and sadness and you relate a little. It turned Spider-Man’s big problem into something we can all relate to. “A villain did a bad thing.” to “Sometimes life is really, really hard and you can’t cope alone.” I mean, this was Spider-Man at the end of that arc:

    Superman shouldn’t ever cry, though. Maybe in front of Lois or the Kents, but that’s it. He’s everyone’s dad, he’s got to have the strong face, the “This will all be okay :c00l: ” face forever.

    Anyway, I pretty much completely agree with you.

  8. “If a guy’s life is on the line, the audience doesn’t care as much. That argument never worked for me.”

    I think the phenomenon you speak of is the result of it simply being a less COMMON thing to see women as victims in general entertainment media. You can only really see it in media meant primarily to be consumed by grown adults: horror movies, prime-time dramas, R-rated cinema, superhero comicbooks, etc. By contrast, guys being endangered happens all the time across media for ALL ages. You can have a PG movie or daytime children’s television show where a guy gets punched in the face on-camera, has firearms pointed at him and fired, etc.

    That’s why writers–particularly in horror movies and superhero comics–tend to play the “female character is hurt!” card: its relative scarcity. I suspect that’s also why the NATURE of their attacks is as you described, too. People are used to seeing “conventional” attacks, so the writers double down on “unconventionality” and have Tigra be assaulted in her home while The Hood’s crew laughs at the videocam footage recorded for posterity. Audiences aren’t as desensitized to that sort of thing. The “solution,” which I’m putting in quotes since it’s not necessarily GOOD, would be to desensitize audiences by way of making such things commonplace across a wider spectrum of media, thus taking away the shock value. Of course, the next step after “hurting women” is “hurting children,” which probably accounts for the current direction of the DCU…

    “I’ve always thought that what modern men need most is a ‘women’s movement’ of their own.”

    Hmm. In a way, hasn’t that been happening for the last 10-15 years or so? Terms like “metrosexual,” “emo,” and “Judd Apatow movie” have proliferated in consumerism/advertising to the point where sizable amounts of people thought Fight Club was a good idea. Indeed, the key advertising message being advanced across the board in 2010 (as denoted by the majority of this year’s Super Bowl ads) is “attention men: you are emasculated. You are not really men anymore because you do all this girly stuff now that men in the past wouldn’t do. But if you BUY OUR PRODUCT, you will be able to take back your lost masculinity!”

    I suspect a lot of what we’re seeing regarding the actions and behaviors of superheroes is actually in keeping with this current marketing-driven pushback against behavior which the very same marketing groups helped to establish in the first place. Perhaps this is the REAL reason why Captain America, whose standing in the Marvel Universe is essentially that of someone possessing the peak human conditioning of Batman with the awe-inspiring authority and leadership of Superman (in other words, “the perfect MAN”), knows not of such things as Myspace or American Idol despite being unfrozen for decades.

  9. “If a guy’s life is on the line, the audience doesn’t care as much. That argument never worked for me.”

    It does for me, but I’ll admit that I may not have “gotten” your post the way that the other commenters did. It seem, to me, to support the above more than refute it.

    Citing Tony Stark and others as examples of how a man wouldn’t be depicted falls short because these are leading characters. Pick a supporting, male character andut him in that scenario.

    I see him being laughed-at, in the heater, during scenes that are meant to evoke sympathy. Make him a little boy or a really young, small man and your position becomes more solid…sadly, it’s also as the character becomes more and more like a woman.

    But again, I may be missing something, I’m quite sleepy, fairly distracted, and occasionally dumb.

  10. “Men…when they step away from traditionally masculine traits, they get a tidal wave of disapproval.”

    You’ve got to be kidding me. Are you not seeing all of the messages in media, mimicked by people you know, that tell guys “Don’t be afraid of your emotions, man!” We have words like “bro-mance” and “man-crush” now. Guys are MUCH MUCH MUCH more “effeminate” than they used to be.

    And this in itself isn’t a bad thing.

    On the other hand, yes there is still a lot of the macho meat-head mentality going on. And of all the behaviors in play, that’s probably done the most damage, historically. But at the same time, I see some men who are actually afraid to stand up for themselves because the circle of friends they have will actually reward them for being uber-meek and “sensitive” to an excessive degree.

    But what’s troubling is ALL of this second-guessing about what’s “feminist”, what’s “feminine”, what’s “masculine”, etc. Why all this categorizing and nit-picking over how people act?

    What we need isn’t any sort of rubric or heavy-handed stereotypical/anti-stereotypical self-enforcement of how we act. We just need to act HONESTLY with ourselves based on the circumstances at hand.

    I’m a guy. There are reasons for me to get angry about things and to use force and willpower to get hard jobs done. There are advantages to that, and I’m not just going to fall to pieces in a crisis just because that might fit in with some sort of nu-masculine profile. On the other hand, I’m definitely not opposed to getting in touch with my feelings as much as possible. I cry when something really overwhelmingly sad happens. When someone I know is going through a hard time, I express emotion and feel bad to them.

    There are positives and negatives to each of these sorts of behaviors, and they don’t have much to do with whether the person doing them is male or female. You just have to act within the circumstances and be true to yourself while also seeking the most useful response possible.